Mark Kelly: 2017 Has Been an Unequivocal Disaster for the Future of the Planet
In 2001, I flew my first flight into space aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour. Roughly a decade later, I commanded that same space shuttle on its final flight. That trip was my fourth journey — and at least for now, my final one — from this planet into space. To see our planet as this majestic blue ball floating in the blackness of space is breathtaking. It is truly the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. When you see it for the first time it appears perfect. Bright and mostly blue, it’s a literal island in our solar system. And make no mistake — right now, we have no place else to go.
Too often, we forget that this remarkable and fragile place is our only home, a point that was underscored earlier this month at the largest gathering of Earth scientists in New Orleans.
At the conference, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made a sobering announcement. It came as part of a study of climate change on 2016’s weather. The scientists behind the study concluded that without climate change, three of the most severe weather events that took place that year would not have happened. Which events?
1. Heat waves that scorched parts of Asia, including India and Thailand, killing more than 500 people. 2. A patch of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean that’s had harmful effects on marine life along the coast of North America. 3. And rising air temperatures that made 2016 the hottest in recorded history.
The impact of climate change — the scars that it’s leaving on our planet — is visible from above, too.
There is visible pollution over large portions of the Earth. You often see this over the Asian sub-continent. The burning of wood and plastic and other materials to heat the homes of hundreds of millions of Indians creates a thick smoke over thousands of square miles.
In China, the problem is more industrialized and more severe. Coal power plants and millions of cars have polluted the skies over eastern China to the extent that I can honestly say I don’t believe I have seen the terra firma of eastern China during my four missions into space. It is hidden by a constant blanket of tiny airborne particles of despair.
Perhaps the thing that worries me the most is the massive deforestation underway in areas like Asia and Latin America. Countless trees and millions of square miles of jungle and forest have been removed to accommodate our desires for more — more wood, more farmland, more pasture, more meat.
When I first looked down upon the Amazon rainforest in 2001, I saw vast areas of jungle and a wide and winding copper colored river that went on and on and on. A river that was impossible to miss and like no other on the planet. By 2011, however, the part that was most noticeable wasn’t the river or the jungle but the large swaths of empty land.